Have you ever had something so good, you thought there was no way it could be better, yet somehow it did? Like seeing The Godfather, then watching The Godfather II. Or putting chicken tenders on a sub.
That was Carlos Santana’s pitch selection in 2019. Returning home for his age-33 season, Santana’s already elite eye at the plate took a step forward. More in the sense of taking a great thing and adding another great thing, the overlying change did not require Francis Ford Coppola-levels of magic.
Santana simply recognized more mistakes, drove them, and saw big jumps in his metrics, as well as the improved results that catapulted the first baseman to a career year. That does not mean that Santana was even good at hitting in the heart of the zone, he was not. He was just better.
One would think that a major league hitter, especially one with Santana’s acumen at the dish, would feast on mistakes. That is not always the case. Santana was not even net-positive on pitches down the middle, he was worth -5 runs there. But, so was Mike Trout.
If you have not checked out this new, great tool from the Statcast catalog, I recommend doing so. If you need a primer on how exactly it works, using run expectancy and attack regions to derive value from every pitch, check out Tom Tango’s blog here.
Looking at Santana’s swing/take chart, it does not look like a ton. He was negative in both the heart and shadow, which account for about 65% of total pitches (25%/40%), but brings tremendous value in seldom swinging at bad pitches. His 11% swing rate, (76 total swings in the chase zone) is less than half the league average, earning a total of 39 runs by taking those pitches.
We already know Carlos has an amazing command of the strike zone, so we are not at all surprised by the 46 runs of overall value off of the plate (chase/waste). For what it is worth, while there are not sortable leaderboards available on this data yet, I took the liberty of scrolling through all publicly available players, and only three accumulated more runs in those combined zones: Alex Bregman (56) Yasmani Grandal (47), and Rhys Hoskins (50).
There seems to be some trade-off in being so darn good at taking bad pitches, as all four of those players were negative in the heart of the plate. Bregman matched Santana and Trout at -5, Grandal was at -10 in both the heart and the shadow, and … then there is Hoskins.
That is where the kids would say, “big oof.”
Now, Hoskins’ abysmal season at identifying meatballs is apropos of nothing outside of my desire to show you that odd chart and also say “big oof.” But there does seem to be something to that inability to have total control of the zone.
It would be beneficial to be positive in all four attack regions, though the overall run value is going to matter most. By my run-through, only Yordan Alvarez, Nolan Arenado, Xander Bogaerts, Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnación were positive in all four quadrants.
As for which region is most important, it is likely that shadow region, for no reason other than that it accounts for the largest quantity of pitches seen, thus more value overall would compound, and so on. In that case, it would be unsurprising to know the following: without compiling all the data into a chart, about 90% of players in the Statcast database were either negative or neutral in that shadow zone in 2019. Alvarez places second in baseball with +10 runs in that area, and then there is our friend Mr. Trout, who doubles Alvarez’s output there at +20.
Getting back to Santana, we now have reason to believe that his overall -11 in the heart and shadow zones combined are not that damning. Mostly everyone is negative in the shadow zone, while the greatest player of a generation managed to be negative in the heart of the plate for a season and still posted a 180 wRC+.
The key for Santana is that his leap in and around the zone bolstered his amazing work around the plate, placing him with some other elite hitters like Trout, Bregman and Christian Yelich. How bad was ‘Los around the plate in recent years?
Carlos Santana’s swing/take values
While Santana did not take a quantum leap in the shadow department, he did make a nice improvement. The large jump came in the heart of the zone, where he at least was identifying mistakes, and you can see he drove them.
It is not rocket science to think that driving pitches in the middle of the plate will lead to success, as it is more or less the point of the game. Yet within a very small and rudimentary look at batting profiles around the league, feasting on the heart of the zone and having elite discipline out of it is not something that happens.
Santana came very close to putting together a perfect 158 game season in terms of controlling the strike zone. We know he has those outer quadrants covered, but Carlos’s discipline inside the zone had him nearing rare air.